F E A T U R E
W hen California reopened at the beginning of summer and retired its COVID-19 tier system, it seemed like we had turned a corner. With highly effective vaccines widely available in San Diego County, the new normal began to resemble the old normal, and most of us felt more than ready to move on from the year of economic turmoil, health scares and more than 4 million lives lost worldwide. Many who survived the disease are grateful to have made it through to the other side with few or no complications. But some are still entrenched in a war against an invisible enemy, battling a constellation of symptoms that, so far, have been considered a medical mystery. For much of the pandemic, these patients were left to bear this burden in silence. Scripps listened and has launched a groundbreaking COVID-19 Recovery Program: Now, local COVID long-haulers have somewhere to turn.
“We thought that if you're young and you're healthy, there really isn't anything to worry about,” she says. “But for me, and for hundreds of thousands of other people around the world now, that turns out to not be the case. Youth and health are not necessarily going to protect you from the severity of the virus.” Recent studies show that about 2 to 10 percent of people who contract COVID-19 continue to experience symptoms months aer they recover from the initial infection. Post-COVID illnesses can come on quickly or take months before they present. For Cisneros, it began three weeks aer her diagnosis. e right side of her body went numb, she lost the ability to walk and she couldn’t articulate words correctly. Fearing she was having a stroke, she went to the emergency department. She was later admitted to Scripps Mercy, San Diego, a twist of fate that le her under the care of nurses she’d worked alongside just weeks earlier. “I was a COVID ICU nurse, then all of a sudden I was the COVID patient,” she says. “It was really dicult to wrap my head around that concept.” To date, Cisneros has dealt with more than 50 symptoms believed to have been brought on by COVID-19. She walked with a limp for months due to neuropathy on her right side, sustained weakness in both hands, had shortness of breath that limited activity to 10 or 15 minutes and was homebound for six months. She also developed postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), viral encephalitis and lesions on her brain. “I always describe it like a tsunami,” she says. “A tsunami is quick; it comes in and crashes into you, and once the water recedes, you’re le to pick up the pieces. You might have people helping you, but the hard work is really on me to gure things out.” In the early days of the pandemic, little was known about the plight of the long-haulers until advocates like Cisneros began to speak about their own experiences. She found the strength to go into detail about her post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 (the technical term for long COVID) in an email to Scripps president and CEO Chris Van Gorder. Her story shed light on the countless long-haulers who face health challenges that aren’t yet fully understood, and her ght became a catalyst for the Scripps COVID-19 Recovery Program.
In the pre-pandemic world, Marianna Cisneros was the picture of health. e registered nurse and married mother of three trained for—and won—tness competitions in her spare time and had just been accepted into nurse practitioner school. Always one to go above and beyond, when the virus arrived in San Diego, Cisneros put school on hold, ramped up her workload and began training to work in the intensive care unit (ICU) at Scripps Mercy Hospital, San Diego. “It's like a re ignited in me,” she says. “is was a chance for me to help out and do my part on the front lines.” However, she was sidelined roughly a week shy of nishing her ICU training. In July 2020, she tested positive for COVID-19. Fortunately, her husband and children were not infected. Her symptoms were initially mild. She didn’t develop a cough, fever or any other symptoms indicative of the disease. At the time, medical guidance suggested that because of her age (then 29) and relatively good health, the virus would run its course and she’d be back in action two weeks later. Little did she know, she was starting a battle that would rage on for more than a year.
Marianna Cisneros, RN, has become a champion for COVID long- haulers.
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